As the fiftieth anniversary of Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech approaches, this could not be a more timely or suitable moment to reconsider one of the most important moments in British race relations as well as one of the most divisive figures in British politics. Powell’s legacy remains controversial long after his 1998 death. In February 2018, debate was sparked after Wolverhampton Civic and Historical Society revealed it had received an application for a blue plaque commemorating Powell. 20,000 people voted on whether the commemorative plaque should be installed, with an astonishing 70% supporting it . The Society have reported that members of the public have approached them, volunteering to pay the necessary £1,000 to install the plaque. While the Bishop of Wolverhampton has warned that erecting such a plaque would result in “honouring his racist views”, former Conservative Party parliamentary candidate Nigel Hastilow supported the plaque, having been deselected in 2007 after writing a newspaper column which declared “Enoch Powell was right” .
The Society will discuss the plans in greater depth at a July meeting, ensuring that Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech will continue to spark debate even beyond its fiftieth anniversary in April. This anniversary forms a particularly suitable moment to consider the claims and predictions which Powell put forward in his speech. Powell made very specific predictions, stating for example that there would be seven million descendants of immigrants living in the UK in the year 2000 . 2001’s census showed that there were only 4.6 million ethnic minority citizens in the UK . Thus, this is a good moment not merely to demonstrate that his expectations did not transpire, but to also consider the specific sources of Powell’s concerns about immigration. Powell predicted the growth of customs unsuited to the UK, immigrants organizing along race lines to become an electoral force, “domination” of the white British who would be unable to access schools and hospitals, “one-way privilege” for immigrants as well as “homes and neighbourhoods” changing “beyond recognition” . It is therefore important to explore the ways and the extent to which divisive anti-immigration rhetoric still utilizes these same tropes, ideas and fears, especially related to the idea of white British citizens being victimized or persecuted. It is interesting to note that, in 2014, Nigel Farage said the “basic principle” of the speech was “right”, as immigration has caused “tension” and ensured that “homes and neighbourhoods changed beyond recognition” . Indeed, in the light of the 2016 EU referendum, the divisive rhetoric which preceded it and the resultant spike in hate crime, this is a particularly timely moment to explore the effects of politicians employing divisive rhetoric and making hate speech appear acceptable. In April 1968, after Powell’s speech, there were reported incidents of related hate crime, including one case whereby fourteen white youths shouted “Powell” and “Why don’t you go back to your own country?” at a West Indian christening party, further slashing attendees, including an elderly man who said he had “been here since 1955 and nothing like this has happened before” . A December 1968 poll by Panorama found that 8% of immigrants felt they had been treated worse by white people since Powell’s speech . This would be an interesting and timely moment to explore whether divisive anti-immigration speech publicly employed by politicians makes people feel able to express hitherto hidden and forbidden views. Indeed, upon Powell’s death, the then Bishop of Croydon noted that one of the most important elements of Powell’s speech was that it gave a “certificate of respectability” to “white racist views which otherwise decent people were ashamed to acknowledge” .
Moreover, an interesting counter-balance to Powell’s concerns about immigration would be to consider the positive capital which the UK has gained in reality via immigration. Additionally, Powell claimed that halting immigration was the “official policy of the Conservative Party” . Indeed, his official biographer Simon Heffer has commented that Conservative MPs confided that, after the 1968 speech, it became “impossible” for them to discuss immigration as he had made the subject “so toxic” . As such, it would be interesting to consider Powell’s memory in the context of the Conservative Party and how they have treated his figure and the legacy of the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in the subsequent years. Another area for exploration is how the Far Right have treated Powell as a figure, how close their rhetoric imitates the 1968 speech and the extent to which they have subscribed to his arguments. Previous journalistic investigations have shown badges and T-shirts bearing the slogan “Enoch was Right” being sold at Far Right rallies, while the neo-Nazi musical group ‘Of Wolves and Angels’ have sampled Enoch Powell’s speeches in their recordings . Thus, Powell should be considered in terms of the inspiration he has provided for the Far Right movement.
An important element to consider is the basis of Powell’s speech and whether he demonstrated any inclination towards these kinds of anti-immigrant views previously. One driver was reportedly to push for leadership of the Conservative Party, by appealing to the grassroots members via such divisive rhetoric, the Race Relations Act forming a decisive moment. To some extent, this was a successful strategy. Although Edward Heath sacked Powell from the Shadow Cabinet, Powell received 100,000 letters in support . Indeed, “James Prior, then Heath’s PPS, revealed that 95% of the sacks of mail Heath received on the issue in the weeks following condemned Heath for sacking Powell” . A Gallup poll in April 1968 showed that 74% of respondents agreed with his speech and only 15% disagreed, with 11% unsure . A February 1969 Gallup poll said Powell was the “most admired person” in British public opinion . In the speech, Powell positioned himself as the defender of his constituents and of ordinary working men and women, quoting them and giving voice to their views. Indeed, Powell seems to have received a great deal of working-class support as a result. Three days after the speech, as the Race Relations Bill was being debated in the House of Commons, 1,000 dockers marched on Westminster with slogans of “We want Enoch Powell”, “We are representatives of the working man” and “Enoch here, Enoch there, we want Enoch everywhere” . The next day, 400 Smithfield meat porters submitted a 92-page petition in his defence, while trade union demonstrations were held in support of Powell . This permits a wider exploration and discussion of whether politicians can still count upon divisive anti-immigration rhetoric to gain support, especially grassroots working-class support, and in light of the divisive rhetoric which preceded the EU referendum in 2016.
Overall, one sees that, at a time of rising hate crime, this is a particularly important time to explore the legacy of one of the most divisive figures in British politics, whose legacy remains controversial, fifty years after the speech which saw him removed from the Shadow Cabinet . In the wake of 2016’s EU referendum, this is an especially timely and suitable moment to explore contemporary politics via the framework of Powell’s speech, considering the effect of divisive anti-immigration rhetoric upon the populace and the extent to which politicians can still gain working-class grassroots electoral support through such rhetoric. It is of particular importance that this article should come from Faith Matters, an NGO with a proven record of countering hate crime and promoting inter-faith dialogue.
This article was written by Bethany Elliot – Social Science Researcher, Faith Matters